Thanks: HUGE buckets of thanks to sprat and sageness for beta
Notes: For the School challenge on ds_flashfiction
Quinn's face was still and attentive as he turned it to the sky and breathed in deep through his nose. Ben copied him, trying to distinguish the different smells: Norfolk Pine, rich earth, and moose scat, he guessed.
"It's going to rain," said Quinn, certainly.
Ben glanced at the high ceiling of white cloud. "How do you know?" Since the first time they'd met, Ben had been trying to ascertain whether Quinn really did know everything or whether he was faking it. Quinn had taught him some useful skills—tracking and paying attention to scat and the evidence of animals' movements through the forest—and Ben did trust him, but he didn't always know what to make of him. Half the time, Quinn seemed to be laughing at him. Ben didn't like it. He frowned at the sky. "It doesn't look like rain. The clouds aren't gray enough."
"It's going to rain." Quinn shot him a sly glance. "The trees told me."
Ben looked at him squarely, and his suspicions found voice. "Are you crazy?" He tried to sound scientific. He didn't want to lose his friend, but he needed to know. He picked a stick off the path in front of them, about a foot long, and hit a tree with it.
Quinn grinned, his eyes twinkling. "What's the matter? Can't you hear them talking? Maybe you just don't know how to listen."
Ben chewed his lip and ran his thumbnail over the stick's rough bark while he studied Quinn and tried to figure out if he was making fun. "My grandmother says I'm a good listener," he said at last.
Quinn nodded, but he didn't seem impressed. He turned, leading the way back toward the Frasers' cabin. "Words are easy. It's not the same as letting the wilderness talk to you." He walked carefully, each footstep graceful and deliberate. Ben tried to copy him. They were leaving regular even tracks, moving like whispers. "Everything has a voice," said Quinn. "Everything that is and was."
A cold shiver ran through Ben, and he shook his head, feeling suddenly angry. "That's a lie!" He scowled. "Stones can't talk. Mountains just sit there—they don't say anything." The words stuck in his throat, but he said them anyway. "Neither do dead people." He dropped the stick, and ran back the way they'd come, back into the forest, his feet scuffing their nice neat tracks.
The light dimmed, and as Ben turned a bend in the path, the first drops of rain fell, making soft whispery noises on the leaves of the trees.
Ben sat at his old wooden schooldesk while all the others hurried out into the yard. It was lunchtime, and soon there'd be a game of tag or bullrush, but he wanted to ask Mrs. Charleston a question, and he wanted to ask it in private. She turned from clearing the blackboard and looked at him, a thin frown on her face. "Benton?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ben stood up, holding his books against his side.
"Was there something you wanted?" She sounded crisp and busy.
"Yes," he said, quickly. "Do trees have a language?" He felt foolish asking, but she was a science teacher. She should welcome scientific enquiry.
Mrs. Charleston scrunched up her eyes and tilted her head. "A language? They're plants, Benton. They're not animals. They don't exhibit social behaviors."
"I know, it's just—" Ben took a step back, toward the door. "Never mind."
"Of course, you can learn things from looking at a tree, if you know what to look for," said Mrs. Charleston, as if she was talking to herself. "Soil composition, age, pruning history, some indications of generalized weather patterns."
"Like—" Ben hesitated. "Like whether it's going to rain?"
Mrs. Charleston laughed at him. "Trees have their own timescales, Benton. They react to weather patterns over months and years. Droughts or wet winters, that kind of thing. They're part of the landscape."
"Of course," said Ben, but she'd already turned to her desk, to the pile of papers that lay there waiting.
Quinn was squatting on the floor of a clearing when Ben found him, looking up as if he'd heard Ben coming a mile off even though Ben had been trying to walk carefully and quietly, heel to toe like Quinn had taught him. Tracking. Stalking.
"Trees don't talk," he told Quinn. "They're plants."
Quinn looked at him for a long moment, his face like a carving. "Everything has a voice. Everything has a story."
"Oh yeah?" said Ben. "What about this piece of grass?" He pointed at a tuft of grass by his shoe. "Does that have a story?"
Quinn considered the grass for a moment. "It does," he said finally, "but it's not a very interesting one."
Ben flushed. "I don't know why I listen to you," he said rudely. "My father can track a man across an ice field. I'll get him to teach me about all this." He flung his arm out.
"Your father isn't here." Quinn's face was blank, and Ben was sure he was making fun of him.
"I hate you." He wanted to run away, but his feet refused to carry him. "I—"
Quinn took him by the shoulders, his hands strong and unexpectedly comforting. "Listen," he said. "Listen to what you're saying. Listen to your heart. Listen and you'll hear her."
"Who?" Ben asked, horrified that Quinn might mean... her.
Quinn didn't answer though. He just pressed Ben down until he was sitting, the ground under him dampening his clothes. "Listen," he repeated, and then he left Ben alone there in the clearing, with only a trail of arctic hare pawprints for company.
Ben sat in the clearing and chewed on his lip, and waited for Quinn to come back. The ground was covered in pale scrubby grass with a few scattered saplings springing up around the edges. On the far side of the clearing a log had fallen, now thick with bright moss, and red toadstools grew around one end of it. There were some boulders off to Ben's right, their smooth shapes patched with lichen. One was split down the middle, probably by ice.
Ben looked at the stones for a long time, but they didn't say anything. Of course they didn't. Quinn was making fun of him, teasing the white boy for wanting to learn Dene ways. Ben clenched his fists and got up, sick of being made fun of, ready to go home.
Wind whispered through the trees. A cricket was singing. By Ben's feet, ants were scurrying past carrying grains of pollen. The beat of a bird's wings, and then a King Eider duck burst from amongst the trees in a flurry of feathers and honked at him. Ben leaped back in surprise and went sprawling onto the ground, and the duck swerved up in a graceful arc into the sky.
Ben's breath caught in a sob. He watched the duck disappear into the distance until his eyes blurred, and then he shut them, and in between his next breath and the one after, he heard the voice of the forest, whispering, murmuring, laughing.
He heard suspicion in the small rasped warnings of insects. He heard the trees gossiping. He heard the distant sound of a laboring airplane coming in to land.
He lay there a long time, his eyes tightly shut. He heard the memory of his mother singing a song about pennies.
"So," said Ray quietly, "the wolf. Huh. The wolf talks to you?"
Ben nodded, and stared resolutely up at the stars. Where the stars should be. The air was smudged orange with pollution and it tasted like old felt. "Yes."
"So it's not just some excuse to, you know—" Ray circled a hand in the air. "—talk to yourself?"
Ben suppressed a sigh. This new Ray was curious about him, more focused than Ray Vecchio had ever been. Ray Vecchio had accepted him without question (albeit with plenty of complaints). This new Ray seemed compelled to understand. It was unnerving. "No."
Ray pursed his lips. "Okay. Okay then. You wear a big hat, you talk to your wolf." He nodded, seemingly to himself. "Okay."
"I also—" Ben bit off the confession before it was too late. This was no time to speak of ghosts. Too much was at stake. "Where I come from in the Northwest Territories," he said, quickly changing tack, "there are vast icefields. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear them singing—"
Ray pressed his fingertip against Ben's lips, silencing him abruptly. Ben blinked, and the air shimmered like crystal.
"Yeah," Ray held his gaze. "I get it. You're a freak. I'm good with, uh, with you being—I mean—" He faltered, and dropped his finger but he didn't step away. His voice dropped to a murmur, like the hum of insects. "Are you—? 'Cause I—"
Ben let his eyes fall shut and listened hard. The hum of Ray's body was warm and sweet, calling to him, as unexpected and moving as the first time he'd heard a symphony play from the page. "Yes," he said, and leaned forward, his blood rushing up and down and pulse thudding—and the brush of his lips against Ray's was like snow falling. Ben kissed him, slowly and carefully. After an impossibly frightening second, Ray's fingers found his jaw, his throat, and Ben swallowed, and Ray kissed him back, equally gently, taking his time.
Ben listened to the language of their lips, the soft rustling of their clothing as their bodies pressing together, and the stutter of his own pulse, and he opened his mouth to Ray and let him in.